Six players returned to the fold from international duty for Real Salt Lake on Monday and in their first meeting with their club teammates in over a month, Head Coach Freddy Juarez sat in his chair in the team’s meal room and quietly took in the excitement of his players and staff.
High-fives and hugs welcomed Albert Rusnak, Douglas Martinez, Noah Powder, David Ochoa, Justen Glad and Aaron Herrera as excitement permeated the room. Quietly, Juarez took in the reactions and reception.
“It was a nice scene today,” Juarez said. “They were excited to be here and we are excited to have our whole family back together again. It adds a positive vibe, which is good to add this late in preseason.”
The players came back with drastically different results in Olympic qualifying and World Cup qualifying matches. Martinez helped Honduras to a fourth consecutive Olympics. Ochoa, Glad and Herrera all shined for the U.S., though they missed out on a bid to return to the quadrennial tournament for the first time since 2008. Rusnak and Slovakia emerged with five points through three World Cup qualifying matches, good for third in Group H and just one point behind group leaders Croatia and Russia. Powder and Trinidad & Tobago are second in their group with four points through two matches.
Meanwhile in Tucson, Real Salt Lake has taken massive steps in preparation for the start of the 2021 MLS season on April 24 against Minnesota United FC.
Integrating those six players into the team isn’t as simple as just dropping them into the lineup in the middle of a three-game week. RSL toppled the Colorado Rapids in a thorough 3-0 win on Saturday and will take on Phoenix Rising on Wednesday before concluding the trip against the LA Galaxy on Saturday. The 11 who took the field against Colorado showed immense progress in the principles RSL has been focusing on in training over the past month.
Shifting players in and out of the lineup while the team is trying to get fitness, all while getting the international players up to date on all of those principles is no easy task.
“The group that left was a part of starting what’s going on right now. They put in the work. They came in early to start training. But the process continued here and the guys kept a high standard in training every day. Now they come back to a group that has continued that standard and even raised it in some ways,” Juarez said. “Our job is to try to mesh them in and get back to contributing in one way or another. We look to insert them where we can get them some minutes and start getting up to speed on some of the concepts and trainings that they’ve missed.”
The six players will return to training on Tuesday ahead of RSL’s meeting with Phoenix on Wednesday, another tough test during a busy 10-day stretch in Arizona.
Against Rising, Juarez is anticipating a difficult opponent to continue to challenge his team in the build-up to the season opener. Phoenix went 11-3-2 in the 2020 season and advanced to the USL Championship finals, though the championship match was never played because of health and safety concerns.
RSL will continue to build its fitness and integrate players and principles.
“We are continuing growth and continuing to play these high-level games. Phoenix is a top team in USL and is a high-caliber team that puts us in a real game environment,” Juarez said. “We did a lot of things against Colorado that we feel that we need to continue to grow and develop in all phases of the game.”
Kickoff on Wednesday is scheduled for 7 p.m. MT, although there will be no stream of the match. Highlights and reaction will be available after the match on RSL.com.